Reid Carruthers will have a powerful ally when he arrives in Virden next week to defend his provincial men's curling title.
In the off-season, the five-time Manitoba champ from West St. Paul joined forces with Mike McEwen, his biggest rival, and their reconstituted dream team, which includes second Derek Samagalski and lead Colin Hodgson, is seeded No. 1 heading into the Viterra Championship.
As skips, Carruthers and McEwen have combined to sweep the last four provincial championships and their teams faced off in the final year ago. As a joint effort, what kind of damage might they inflict on the field in 2019?
"We knew they were great friends for really a long time and they're two really good shooters," said Connor Njegovan, the lead on Jason Gunnlaugson's No. 2-seeded crew out of Morris. "I mean, it's a scary good team with a lot of experience."
Carruthers and McEwen haven't been dominant yet but it may only be a matter of time. To hear Carruthers tell it, they've had a productive stretch while figuring out how all the parts fit together.
The foursome started the season with Carruthers skipping and McEwen throwing fourth stones. That evolved into McEwen skipping and throwing fourth, followed by Carruthers throwing final stones and calling the game. Most recently, McEwen has been skipping and throwing fourth with Carruthers in the third slot, a formula they plan to continue in Virden.
'We knew they were great friends for really a long time and they're two really good shooters. I mean, it's a scary good team with a lot of experience' - Connor Njegovan, lead on rival Jason Gunnlaugson's No. 2-seeded team, on facing McEwen-Carruthers.
"We're trying to find the right combination of who's the best fit at which position and then also, more importantly, what gives us the best chance to win and who's the best support for players at different positions?" said Carruthers. "It was a team decision and we're really excited about putting our best team forward in Virden...
"We each bring totally different skill-sets and we also had a different approach to the game as far as strategy. Our team was maybe a little bit more aggressive than what McEwen's team would employ and there are pros and cons to each. We're still trying to figure out the best combination for the four players that are on the sheet now."
While it might surprise some that rivals could emerge from elite competition and still be close friends, Carruthers is matter-of-fact about it.
"It's just a game. It's not ultimate fighting, it's not like we're out there drilling each other. It's curling, right?" he said. "It's a friendly sport but yes I think what boosted our friendship was the fact we were able to go toe to toe with each other and have some games that really hurt after and still, a day or two later, send messages to each other and talk it out and talk about the games.
"Part of what strengthened our relationship was it was almost like putting our relationship through the ringer. We stress-tested our relationship and now we're curling together."
What was Rob Gordon thinking when he heard McEwen and Carruthers had formed a super team?
"Powerhouse, I think," said the 23-year-old lead on Braden Calvert's No. 3 seeds from Assiniboine Memorial. "The two best skips in our province for the last quadrennial coming together. You'd think they're a tough team to beat, which they are. They're a very strong team."
Calvert's squad, which includes third Kyle Kurz and second Ian McMillan, is in prime position to make a move in Virden. It has won three Manitoba Curling Tour events and qualifying for three Grand Slam events. It's 3-0 when it has gone head to head with Carruthers.
"We've got some breaks and we've strung together some really good games," said Gordon, who is making his fifth appearance at provincials. "Braden has played really well against Reid and Reid is a little annoyed by that. We're just hoping to continue that at the Viterra...
"When he has his draw weight, (Braden's) one of the best players I've ever played with."
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Carruthers, whose team has won three tournaments and lost in the final of a Grand Slam event, welcomes the competition.
"We'll settle it all at the Viterra," said Carruthers when asked about the three losses to Calvert. "Well, they've played well. They've had a consistent year and against us I felt like, Braden in particular, has been playing really well. You can tell he gets excited to play against our team and maybe he's trying to make a statement but I'm not too nervous about it."
Gunnlaugson, who has made one quarter-final and two semifinal appearances at Slam events this season, and Calvert are very capable of making a push.
"We're all prepared to make a deep run here," said Gordon, who played with Pat Simmons, Colton Lott and Kyle Doering a year ago in Winkler. "It's just a matter of if we can get past some of the top guys."
Mike Sawatzky Sports Reporter
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
Top seeds: 1. Reid Carruthers, West St. Paul; 2. Jason Gunnlaugson, Morris; 3. Braden Calvert, Assininiboine Memorial; 4. Tanner Lott, Winnipeg Beach; 5. Dennis Bohn, Assiniboine Memorial.
TV coverage: Sportsnet will broadcast the semifinal (8:30 a.m.) and final (2:30 p.m.) on Sunday, Feb. 10.
Quote: "We're trying to not to have it be a clash but more of a competitive edge where two minds are always greater than one, as long as they're working together. That's what we've been working on." -- Reid Carruthers on joining forces with Mike McEwen
Updated on Thursday, January 31, 2019 at 12:47 PM CST: corrects home club of Reid Carruthers